The following is offered in the spirit of the late Harry Caray, who might be considered a Wittgensteinian in the circles of baseball commentary, if only baseball commentators were familiar with philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Like Wittgenstein, Caray offered insights of such elegant simplicity that they strike the initiated dumb with their mystical clarity. While much of baseball analysis and analytic philosophy conduct their business in abstract formulae and complex arguments, Caray and Wittgenstein float remarks and reminders that the rest of us, thinking we're intelligent, would never have considered -- so we learn that we've out-smarted ourselves. We are thereby chastened and brought back to the world as it is.
Thus we offer the obvious, by way of a starting point for looking at the second half of this summer's baseball season: Winning clubs become winning clubs by beating losing clubs. Winning clubs win and losing clubs lose. It's anomalous when any club is as good against winning clubs as against losing clubs.
Indeed, through the games of July 20, not a single club in Major League Baseball held a winning record against opponents with winning records and a losing record against clubs with losing records. The majority of clubs, 16 of them, held winning records against losing clubs and losing records against winning clubs.
Furthermore, only five clubs across the majors held winning records against clubs with winning records (Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and New York Mets). Nine other clubs held losing records against losing clubs (the Reds, Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, Colorado Rockies, San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres).
If those aren't very interesting remarks, they become so in the application. The most remarkable cases are those like the Reds, who play right around .500 against winning clubs, certainly well enough to contend for the playoffs, but then play dumb against losing clubs so they lose that edge and find themselves no closer than the fringe of contention, if that.
The matter takes some urgency at the moment, because the Reds, barely within sight of the nearest playoff spot, face a strong opportunity to put themselves in view during the next three to six weeks. Starting on July 21, the Reds were to play 19 of their next 22 games -- as well as 31 of their next 40 -- against clubs with losing records.
Unfortunately, where most fans might anticipate a feast, Reds fans anticipate frustration. It's precisely the problem for the Reds that they play badly against losing clubs.
Reds fans have commented endlessly this year about the club's lack of verve. Such remarks often are easy explanations for losing -- that is, the club loses and therefore lacks intensity.
But the Reds clearly don't lack intensity. They just lack it against the lesser clubs.
Against winning clubs this year, the Reds are 25-27. Only seven other teams across the big leagues are better in that respect. But the Reds also are 23-25 against losing clubs, and that's why they woke up on July 21 nine games from the nearest playoff spot.
Look at every other club performing like the Reds against winning clubs and you'll find they've built contending status by cleaning up against the losers.
As of nightfall on July 20, the St. Louis Cardinals are 17-17 against winning clubs but 40-26 against losers. The Chicago White Sox are 21-22 against winners and 34-20 against losers. The Los Angeles Angels are 31-30 against winners and 29-18 against losers. All those clubs are in the playoffs if they began today.
Some clubs beat up so decisively on losers that it doesn't matter how seldom they beat the winners. The Chicago Cubs are only 11-17 against clubs with winning records but a resounding 47-23 against clubs with losing records. The Philadelphia Phillies, a drab 17-26 against winning clubs, are tied for the NL East lead because of their 36-20 performance against losing clubs. The Milwaukee Brewers, 15-20 against winners, are 40-23 against losers.
From those numbers and the remaining schedule, we might surmise that the Brewers will tighten up the NL Central, if they don't entirely overtake the Cubs to win the division. The Cubs play 30 more games against clubs with winning records, and they've not been up to that task. The Brewers face winners only 23 more times. St. Louis plays 28 more games against winning clubs.
The Reds are on the docket for only 23 more games against clubs with winning records, all but one within the division. It remains to be seen if the Reds can become a contender by taking advantage of their schedule.
Unlike the Reds so far, contenders are ready to play against everyone. Clubs like the Reds, who play to the level of their competition, don't put their own stamp on the game. Winners raise the Reds to their level, while losers drag the Reds down to their level. The Reds just kind of show up and let the opponent set the tone.
How else does one figure the Reds? They're a combined 20-17 against the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Brewers, Mets and Florida Marlins. Remember, the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets are three of the five clubs with winning records against winning opponents. The Reds can hang with these guys. But then the Reds are a combined 4-15 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates, who are all below .500.
The Reds aren't the only club that performs respectably against winning clubs and then can't dominate the losers. We'd also count in that group the Los Angeles Dodgers (16-20 against winners and 32-30 against losers) and the Toronto Blue Jays (28-32 against winners and 20-18 against losers). Obviously, though, the Reds are a slightly starker case -- better against winners and worse against losers than the Jays or Dodgers.
In that light, the Reds might be the most frustrating and underachieving club in the major leagues. Fueling that fire, we point out that the Reds are 11-3 in one-run games against losing clubs, meaning they barely win those games. In games during which one club more clearly has the upper hand, those decided by two or more runs, the Reds are a dreadful 12-18 against losing clubs.
To further illustrate how irritating it becomes to watch the Reds play as they do against losing clubs, consider another group of clubs that beats up on losers but doesn't belong on the same field with the winners. We'd include the Kansas City Royals (24-17 against losers and 21-37 against winners), Baltimore Orioles (24-14 against losers and 23-36 against winners), Pittsburgh Pirates (26-20 against losers and 18-34 against winners) and Arizona Diamondbacks (35-24 against losers and 13-26 against winners).
There's nothing especially fascinating in those examples. They're all clubs that are good enough to have their way with losers but weak enough to not have a prayer against winners.
Unlike those clubs, though, the Reds can raise their game to beat winning competition. It's all there in the results. The Reds are better than the Royals, Orioles, Pirates and Diamondbacks because the Reds can play to a higher level. But then the Reds flatten out against losing clubs, which makes them absolutely no better and all the more frustrating.
It's worth noting that one of those clubs, the Diamondbacks, stands a good chance of winning the NL West, where every club holds a losing record. Besides the Diamondbacks, no one in the NL West can beat anybody except, it seems, the Reds, who are 7-11 against that dismal division.
But there's still hope for the Reds. Time and again this year we've seen clubs climb into contention by running off long winning streaks against losing clubs, even when losing clubs had been giving them trouble.
On June 15, the Minnesota Twins were 34-36, apparently headed nowhere as they faced their next nine games against Washington, Arizona and San Diego. Then the Twins won all nine games and returned to the living. Thank you, interleague play.
The New York Mets fired Manager Willie Randolph last month, largely because the Mets weren't beating clubs they were supposed to beat. At the start of July, they were 23-28 against clubs with losing records. But the Mets rallied through last weekend to win 11 of 13 games, with eight of those wins coming against the Reds, San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies.
The Cubs put up a nine-game winning streak this year when the schedule gave them nine straight games against the Dodgers, Rockies and Padres. The Detroit Tigers, 24-36 in early June, rallied to 41-40 before month's end after the schedule gave them 16 games against the Indians, Dodgers, Giants, Padres and Rockies.
Likewise, the remaining schedule lays out for the Reds to become a contender. It simply remains to be seen if the Reds will play it like one.
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